Vatican's lawyer says abuse suit was withdrawn to avoid loss
By Kevin J. Jones
St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City
St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

.- The withdrawal of a sex abuse lawsuit against the Holy See which tarnished the reputation of Pope Benedict XVI and added to a worldwide media controversy in Lent of 2010 shows the case had no legal merit, the Holy See’s U.S. lawyer Jeffrey Lena says.

“They withdrew because they knew that they would lose the case if they continued to pursue it. They did not want a negative ruling from the court,” Lena told CNA on Feb. 13.

He charged that the lawsuit’s initial prominence was an example of “the use of the judicial system to generate a media event.”

“In my view, the victim was used to promote a legally unsustainable attack on the Holy See,” Lena remarked.

Attorney Jeff Anderson filed the lawsuit “John Doe 16 vs. Holy See,” in April 2010. It charged that the Vatican knew about complaints against Wisconsin priest Fr. Lawrence Murphy, who sexually abused hundreds of minors between 1950 and 1974 at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee.

The suit sought monetary damages and the release of Vatican files about sexually abusive priests.

Anderson previously said that a key reason for filing the suit was to hold the Pope and the Vatican accountable for abuse. He claimed that the goal had been met in a secondary way, citing a federal court ruling involving the bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The attorney said he was given 30,000 pages of new documents that show Vatican officials were indifferent to reports of sex abuse by clergy.

Lena was skeptical of the reasons given.

“All the excuses that plaintiffs have offered are just that – excuses. They withdrew because they knew that they would lose the case if they continued to pursue it. They did not want a negative ruling from the court,” he said.

The plaintiff attorneys could not argue against the Holy See’s motion to dismiss without contradicting themselves, he contended.

The suit was filed at the same time new abuse allegations surfaced in Europe, which contributed to a media firestorm surrounding the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict’s actions as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Anderson and his fellow attorney Mike Finnegan provided case documents to major news media outlets that later came under scrutiny for insufficient skepticism in reporting about the charges.

“Naturally, lawsuits against important people or institutions generate a lot of attention,” Lena said. “Filing this lawsuit permitted (the) plaintiff's attorneys to make outlandish and unsupported claims, while protected by the litigation privilege, and drew attention to the discredited theory of a worldwide conspiracy of cover-up.”

In a separate statement, the Vatican’s U.S. lawyer charged that the plaintiff’s attorneys “orchestrated a press event replete with props and other trappings designed to induce a media feeding frenzy.”

The attorneys’ claims of conspiracy, Lena charged, were the “centerpiece of a planned sequence of media events” that used the sexual abuse of a child to assert “fallacious allegations” against the Holy See.

Lena specifically criticized the attorneys’ portrayal of the 1922 Vatican document “Crimen sollicitationis” as forbidding the reporting of sexual abuse to civil authorities. He said that the document, later revised in 1962, was itself the first “reporting statue.”

It could not have been designed to prevent abuse reporting because there were no civil reporting statutes at the time the document was written, he said. The document dealt with obligations under Church law, not civil law, and did not bar reporting incidents of suspected sexual abuse.

“Mythology about the Catholic Church to the contrary, the Holy See is not responsible for the supervision of the more than 400,000 priests around the world,” Lena noted. “Attorneys in this case knew that, and their knowledge of this fact is precisely what made the filing of this lawsuit so pernicious in the first place.”

The Holy See’s lawyer urged others to remember that the plaintiff was “terribly abused” as a boy.

“As Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly said, abuse – whether in public or private institutions, by whomever, and of whatever creed or religious affiliation – is a sin and a crime.”

Fr. Murphy, the priest involved in the abuse, died in 1998 amid a canonical trial hindered by a lack of proper records from the archdiocese. While the Holy See agreed to suspend a canonical trial seeking to remove him from the clerical state, it did not rule out laicizing him, contrary to media reports.

As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the future Pope Benedict XVI had limited jurisdiction over sex abuse cases until 2001, when the Roman Rota transferred responsibility to his congregation. Before that time, he became involved in abuse cases only when they allegedly took place in the confessional or involved violations of the Sacrament of Penance, as happened to several victims of Fr. Murphy.

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